Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Book Review: Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East

Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East
Gerard Russell

Gerard Russell, who is British, spent many years working in his country’s diplomatic corps. While there, he got some good advice at the embassy from a supervisor: Make yourself scarce, get out, and mix with the people. That plus his inherent interest in religions, Classics, and history stood Russell in good stead. He met members of many little-known faiths most Westerners never have, or will ever have the chance to, and has written about them marvelously in his new book. The religions covered are: Mandaeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts, and Kalasha (my spell-checker didn’t recognize several of these faiths). I like nothing more than to read about obscure religions, and I drew a blank with the Kalasha. Turns out I’d read a few pages about them in a book about far-flung Pakistan twenty years ago. These really are little-known religions. There haven’t been books on them for a general audience in decades.

One of the most interesting things about these faiths is that they don’t necessarily adhere to the Abrahamic faith (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) norm. They aren’t necessarily monotheistic. Their inheritance may come from a time when what is now the Mideast was greatly influenced by Classical European thought. All sorts of odd things are always popping up in the book, and you start to realize that your view of this part of the world has been limited. That’s understandable, as most of these faiths have been secretive, something they had to be to survive. In fact, in some cases many of their own adherents don’t even know the tenets of their faiths. Some of the religions end up being more like ethnic groups. There are reasons for this, too, and they are fascinating ones. It’s amazing that these groups have survived at all, but there’s a reason for that, too. For well over a thousand years Islam was more tolerant toward the minority faiths in its midst than Christianity was toward its. Imagine, says, Russell, if adherents of Thor or Aphrodite still practiced in remote parts of Europe. You have the equivalent surviving in the Middle East today. But there is a danger in the last few decades with the rise of radical Islam, which is now the biggest threat to the faiths presented here. It’s one of the many ironies in a book that’s full of them.

The Mandaeans may be unique in preserving religious traditions from ancient Babylon. Perhaps no religion on earth has maintained such an unbroken and ancient legacy. You may recall front page news a few months ago of ISIS bombing Yazidi communities. This was probably the first time most Americans had ever heard of Yazidis. They revere a Peacock Angel with an interesting backstory. The angel, once God’s favorite, was cast down into hell by him for prideful behavior. Punished there, he repented and God forgave him. Sound familiar? Well, not quite. God welcomed the angel back to heaven and he’s back where he was and now in charge of the spiritual well-being of earth. Because of these beliefs, the Yazidis have been called “devil-worshippers” and have encountered persecution over the centuries. From their perspective, they have no devil and can’t imagine a God who wouldn’t forgive anyone who’s repentant. Many of the groups in Heirs have beliefs that sound familiar at first but turn out to be quite different. Russell is always careful to let them speak for themselves. The Zoroastrians, who go back to at least 1000 BC, believe they are the ones who sent wise men from the East to visit the infant Christ (turns out many early Christians believed this also). Labeled “fire-worshippers” by outsiders, once again Russell lets them define themselves. The Druze, more than any group here, have preserved religious teachings from Classical Greece, especially the teachings of Pythagoras. The Samaritans maintain that not all the Lost Tribes of Israel were lost. Moreover, it is they who’ve maintained the ancient traditions of Israel. Somewhat similarly, the Copts of Egypt maintain they are the oldest extant Christian community in the world. The Kalasha are the only indigenous religious group from the remote Hindu Kush who haven’t converted to Islam. They trace their heritage to Alexander the Great’s army, and there is some evidence for this. The locals look on the Kalasha as pagans, but to the Kalasha, they are as they have always been, and that’s as it should be.

If you can picture religions as bodies of water, then these faiths are lesser-known streams, obscure backwaters, crosscurrents that astonish, branches that can be traced back to ancient oceans long since forgotten.

There is a problem in the book that needs addressing. Russell’s scene-setting and background sometimes take too long, and there isn't enough focus on the main course. Since one reason for the book is the fact that there’s so little out there on these faiths for non-scholars, this is a weakness. However, all of the background and context-making is entirely absorbing and often revelatory. Most of the italicized words that come in for repeat usage aren't listed in the index. A glossary would've been helpful. And Russell mistakenly claims that the Western Wall isn’t a remnant of the Temple. But he is otherwise well-anchored, at least on everything I’m familiar with.

That said, I recommend this book highly. A tour like this is rare and exciting. Russell makes a fine plea for religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. A final chapter on how some of these communities have found refuge in the U.S. is hopeful but raises vexing questions. They’re here, they’re glad to be free from persecution, but they’re haunted by the specters of assimilation, secularism, and indifference. At this point in the book you’re rooting for them. But then, you probably have been for quite a while. That’s a testament to Gerard Russell.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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